Reckitt Benckiser after Becht: a hard act to follow

There is a change at the top of FMCG powerhouse Reckitt Benckiser, writes Gemma Charles, but will the new captain be a match for his wily predecessor?

Reckitt Benckiser has 17 global 'powerbrands'
Reckitt Benckiser has 17 global 'powerbrands'

Reckitt Benckiser's recent share-price crash - triggered by the news that talismanic chief executive Bart Becht was to leave the company - provided a stark reminder to his successor, Rakesh Kapoor, that the shoes he is filling are immense.

Becht, who has been at RB for 16 years, has presided over impressive growth at the £8.5bn FMCG company.

Its focus on innovation with such brands as Cillit Bang, Vanish and Finish - those that sit just outside of the main-stream FMCG dogfight traditionally staged between Unilever and Procter & Gamble - has led to the doubling of sales and near-quadrupling of share value over the past decade, buoyed by high levels of marketing investment.

Testament to the strength of his tenure is that when Unilever was seeking a new boss three years ago, Becht's name was very much in the frame. He became as famous for his pay package, which hit its peak at £92m in 2009, as he did for his charitable giving.

Becht's high profile stands very much in contrast to Kapoor, RB's executive vice-president for category development - effectively, global marketing director. His promotion to the top job provoked a collective cry of 'Who?'

'Kapoor is an unknown quantity to analysts,' admits Investec Securities consumer analyst Martin Deboo. However, he concedes that a big reason for that is because RB, unlike its peers, tends not to expose its second tier of management to the City.

Marketing focus

The signs are that Kapoor, a company stalwart who takes up the top post in September, could prove to be a strong advocate of the marketing discipline.

'His appointment is good news for marketing,' says one source with close links to the company. 'There is nobody who has been there longer and he has worked across a huge number of markets. Rakesh has built his career there and will finish his career there.'

The City's reaction to Becht's departure 'was telling, but the recovery is significant', adds the source, pointing out that while £2bn was wiped off RB's market value, it has since returned to pre-announcement levels.

Radical change is unlikely under Kapoor, he adds, with the new boss very much seen as the continuity candidate who will try to follow the Becht formula for running a company (see box).

Mark Fiddes, executive creative director at ad agency Draftfcb, who previously worked as Euro RSCG's global creative director on RB for five years, is 'shocked' by Becht's exit.

Becht, he says, knows how 'crucial' innovation is to survival. 'You only have to look at the way RB comes up with so many new formulations, formats and techniques for its many hero brands.

'There is an urban myth that he is still the product manager on Finish,' adds Fiddes. 'That is testament to how closely he is involved in marketing.'

In Fiddes' view, Kapoor is more than up to the job and brings numerous positive qualities. 'I have always found him an open ear to good creative development and he sees himself as an advocate for ground-breaking creative within RB. He's the last person to say "I know what I like and I like what I know".'

Kapoor, says Fiddes, defended with aplomb when P&G's Fairy made an aggressive move five years ago into dishwasher cleaning products, the category dominated by RB's Finish.

Kapoor introduced a fresh global brand positioning for Finish, 'The Diamond Standard', which reinforced its premium price and performance positioning. 'Less far-sighted marketers would have tried to do it with short-term promotions,' acknowledges Fiddes.

Not only is Kapoor well-versed in maintaining leadership positions, he is also up to speed on the digital world, claims Anthony Rushton, co-founder of online video ad specialist Telemetry.

'Rakesh seems to be at the forefront of RB's strategy drive into innovative advertising mediums,' he says. 'At a digital strategy level, I hear his name mentioned frequently and in January it was Rakesh who signed a three-year deal with us to deliver and audit RB's global online video advertising.'

This significant move by Kapoor has made RB one of the world's biggest spenders in online video advertising, says Rushton.

Tough comparison

Kapoor might well be winning plaudits from those who have worked with him, but in the coming months, he is likely to find the going tougher than the golden years the company has enjoyed under Becht. While its first quarter figures for 2011 provided some cheer, with pre-tax profit rising 4.7% to £486m, RB's fourth quarter figures for 2010 disappointed the City.

Deboo identifies two tasks that should be at the top of Kapoor's to-do list: managing the integration of Durex and Scholl owner SSL, which RB acquired last year for £2.5bn; and dealing with increased competition from P&G in the dishwasher and fabric-care categories.

While not a consumer goods matter, a major RB revenue driver has been its heroin-replacement tablet Suboxone, which has lost its US patent, making it vulnerable to being undercut by cheaper generic drug-makers. Deboo, therefore, also highlights the need for Kapoor to make sure the switch to a second-generation version of the drug, a patent-protected film, is a success.

'It is a far more complicated picture at RB than it used to be,' concludes Deboo. Even Becht recently admitted that the company 'cannot walk on water'.

Against this backdrop, rival companies, RB's own shareholders and assorted commentators will be watching closely to see whether Kapoor can follow in Becht's footsteps, or sink in their sizeable imprints.

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT RAKESH KAPOOR

Rakesh Kapoor joined Reckitt & Colman in 1987, making him one of the firm's longest-serving executives. The Indian-born 52-year-old is not a complete RB lifer, as previously he headed an IT start-up.

Kapoor has a degree in chemical engineering and an MBA, and initially joined the sales division, but quickly switched to marketing, taking on a managerial role for personal care. He rose to VP marketing India and regional marketing director, South Asia, before joining the UK business as global marketing director in 1997.

After the 1999 merger with Benckiser, Kapoor was appointed global category marketing leader for home care, rising to his current role, executive vice-president for category development, five years ago. This covers global marketing, R&D, market research, product design, marketing strategy, media and digital marketing, with direct responsibility for the global 'powerbrand' strategies and innovations. During his tenure, the powerbrands have grown from 57% of RB's annual sales to 69% in 2010.

Kapoor also led the acquisition and integration of Nurofen-owner Boots Healthcare International, which established RB as a major player in global consumer healthcare.

Football and cricket fan Kapoor is married with two children and lives in Bucks, conveniently located for RB's Slough HQ.

RECKITT BENCKISER'S STRATEGY BART BECHT'S MAVERICK MODEL OF NURTURING BRANDS

Reckitt Benckiser has a very simple approach to its business: focus on 17 'powerbrands' in fast-growing categories, innovate and invest in them - and in every market.

Becht wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in April 2010, explaining how the company had outperformed its rivals, P&G, Unilever and Colgate, in growth terms during the downturn. Becht describes the business as 'a company without a country', reflecting the fact that Reckitt Benckiser resulted from the merger in 1999 of British cleaning-products group Reckitt & Colman and Dutch consumer goods company Benckiser.

Ideas for NPD are sourced from across the 60 countries in which RB operates, but only when they have been proven on a small scale are products backed with significant marketing spend.

Under Becht's stewardship, a culture of decisive action has been created. Almost every key decision is made in the meeting at which it is first discussed, with board meetings 'an Italian family dinner' with everyone vying to be heard.

Becht does not believe in crushing minority views. 'If we have 10 people in a room, eight agreeing, two passionately believing something else, we allow those two to experiment with their ideas. We let them run maverick, small-scale experiments to get consumer feedback. Some of our biggest ideas come that way.'

Air Wick Freshmatic was one idea initially backed by only a minority of managers, but it is now sold in 85 countries, generating sales of more than £200m annually.

While the 54-year-old Becht may now be looking for a 'new intellectual challenge', Kapoor is unlikely to tear up his predecessor's roadmap to success. Becht undoubtedly leaves behind one of the greatest marketing case studies in history.